When the 115th Congress is sworn into office next month, it will include 21 women senators, a record, and there will be three states where both senators are women.
Of the 46 women to have served in the US Senate since its inception, fully half have taken office during the past 20 years.
But one doesn’t hear a whole lot about the Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the US Senate. It may partly be because she served just a single day, but it’s also likely that she’s little recognized because she espoused views that today are decidedly out of tune with society as a whole.
Felton was born in 1835 in Decatur, Ga., the daughter of a prosperous planter and merchant. Unusual in the antebellum South, she was sent to Madison Female College, in Madison, Ga., which was essentially a finishing school, incorporating both the last years of secondary education and the first year or two of college. At Madison, she finished at the top of her class.
She married young, in 1853, to William H. Felton, and moved to the latter’s plantation just north of Cartersville, Ga. Like most plantations in the Deep South, the Feltons had slaves.
On the plus side, Rebecca Ann Felton was a prominent women’s rights advocate, pushing for women’s suffrage long before it was popular. In addition, she was a proponent of prison reform and educational modernization.
Also a lecturer, writer and reformer, Felton was considered the most prominent woman in Georgia in the Progressive Era.
Felton’s involvement in politics went beyond being an advocate. Her husband was a member of the US House of Representatives and Georgia House of Representatives, and she ran his campaigns.
In 1922, when Felton was 87, she was named to the US Senate through a bit a political maneuvering, though not all on her part.
Georgia Gov. Thomas W. Hardwick was a candidate for the next general election to the Senate when sitting Sen. Thomas E. Watson died prematurely. Seeking an appointee who would not be a competitor in the coming special election to fill the vacant seat and also looking for a way to secure the vote of the new women voters alienated by his earlier opposition to the Nineteenth Amendment (giving women the right to vote), Hardwick chose Felton to serve as senator in early October 1922.
Despite Hardwick’s tactics, Walter F. George won the seat. Rather than take his seat immediately when the Senate reconvened on Nov. 21, 1922, George allowed Felton to be sworn in. This was due in part to the efforts of Felton and a supportive campaign launched by the women of Georgia.
While Felton was a solon for but a single day, she became the first woman seated in the US Senate.
As such, she was oldest freshman senator to enter the legislative body, at 87 years, nine months and 22 days; was the last member of either house of Congress to have been a slave owner; and is also the only woman to have served as a senator from Georgia.
Unfortunately, Felton’s “progressivism” only went so far. Felton was, quite simply, a virulent white supremacist. She claimed, for instance, that the more money that Georgia spent on black education, the more crimes blacks committed, wrote Leon Litwack in the 1999 work Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.
Felton considered “young blacks” who sought equal treatment “half-civilized gorillas,” and ascribed to them a “brutal lust” for white women, Litwack wrote, adding that while Felton sought suffrage for women, she decried voting rights for blacks, arguing that it led directly to the rape of white women.
Felton was among the few prominent women who spoke in favor of lynching and on at least one occasion stated that white Southerners should “lynch a thousand [black men] a week if it becomes necessary” to “protect woman’s dearest possession.”
“She’s a puzzle to us now because we would have expected a woman who was committed to expanding the opportunity for women to have been sensitive to the plight and oppression of African Americans,” Fitz Brundage, an expert on post-Civil War Southern history at the University of North Carolina, told The Wall Street Journal. “She never had a moment of introspection.”
(Top: Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, in all her conflicted opaqueness.)